Ex-NASA CTO builds cloud dream team, launches Nebula

The cloud computing world has been anxious to hear former NASA CTO Chris Kemp’s plans since he left his post in the spring to pursue a startup venture, and on Wednesday morning, he introduced his new company, Nebula. It’s selling an OpenStack-based appliance for managing scale-out cloud deployments, and is backed by premier talent and investors.

Nebula isn’t disclosing how much it has raised, but Co-Founder and CEO Kemp said it‘s turned down “tens of millions.” It raised money from seed investors Andy Bechtolsheim, David Cheriton and Ram Shriram — Google’s (s goog) first three investors — and venture firms Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers and Highland Capital Partners.

Kemp’s co-founders are VP of Engineering Devin Carlen, formerly CTO of Anso Labs, and VP of Business Development Steve O’Hara, formerly founder of Prime Networks, OnFiber and CoreLogic. Anso Labs is the IT contractor (acquired by Rackspace (s rax)in February) that wrote the Nova code to power NASA’s Nebula cloud, which now comprises the core compute component of OpenStack. Carlen was the first person to write code for one of the original Nova developers.

Nebula also employs a team of software and hardware architects with significant experience at Google, Amazon Web Services (s amzn), Walt Disney (s dis) and Microsoft (s msft). They aren’t just random people either, Kemp told me; they’ve done really big things.

What they’re all working is fairly fascinating: A hardware appliance pre-loaded with customized OpenStack software and Arista networking tools, designed to manage racks of commodity servers as a private cloud. How commodity? Kemp said the first two certified reference architectures when the product is available in the fall will be for Dell’s PowerEdge C micro servers (s dell) and Facebook’s bare-bones Open Compute servers. In fact, Nebula rolled out its appliance at OSCON Wednesday in concert with Facebook and Rackspace.

Kemp wasn’t planning to do an appliance, he admits, but initial investor Bechtolsheim convinced him it was the right approach. It lets Nebula provide a turnkey product for deploying OpenStack, Kemp explained, by optimizing and locking down some of the variables that might make deploying a private cloud more difficult. He likens it to the homogeneous approaches both Facebook and Google took to build out their infrastructures, or to that which Apple (s aapl) takes with its products: You specialize particular software to run on a particular hardware configuration and it just works. The hardware is a just an ideal delivery mechanism for the software.

But Nebula isn’t just loading OpenStack onto an appliance; it’s also specializing the code to meet the needs of the enterprise clientele it’s seeking. That includes creating a petabyte-scale storage system complete with the types of enterprise features and support that customers would normally have to go to EMC (s emc), NetApp (s ntap) or another mega-storage vendor to get. Some of the optimized code will go back into OpenStack, Kemp said, but some will remain within Nebula.

However, even with all the specialization, Nebula is very committed to building the core OpenStack code base. “OpenStack exists because Eucalyptus didn’t work at NASA,” Kemp acknowledged, so he understands the importance of solid, customizable, open-source code.

Ultimately, he said, a better OpenStack means a better Nebula, because Nebula can focus on filling in the gaps and not on reinventing the wheel. Much like Bechtolsheim was successful at Sun Microsystems (s orcl) by building atop Unix and at Arista by using standard hardware components.

CTO Carlen is still heavily involved with the OpenStack Compute and dashboard teams, Kemp said, and Nebula will probably have more than 50 employees contributing to OpenStack once it begins hiring more.

Looking forward, Kemp sees an opportunity to have Nebula’s appliance serve as the delivery model for an entire ecosystem of new software options. Companies pushing Hadoop-based products, NoSQL databases or other software that benefits from running in a scale-out infrastructure are potential partners, he said.

“I don’t want to sell against VMware (s vmw),” he explained, because there’s a class of legacy applications with strict configuration requirements that need legacy software and hardware. But new applications are fair game.

Anyone following OpenStack knows that Nebula is hardly alone in selling products built atop the open-source code, though. Kemp is adamant that Nebula’s appliance approach is the right one for the OpenStack market, though, calling any companies focused on writing software great acquisition targets for large vendors that can port that software onto hardware platforms. At the time I spoke with Kemp, he thought Citrix (s ctxs), which has announced plans for a commercialized OpenStack distribution to complement the OpenStack-supporting Cloud.com software it just acquired, was in the best position to compete by offering an appliance.

Time will tell if Kemp’s assessment holds up and Nebula’s business model really is what OpenStack users want. Yesterday, Dell announced a reference architecture and software designed to make OpenStack implementation and management a breeze. There’s also fellow startup Piston Cloud Computing, which recently raised $4.5 million to build a business around OpenStack. Joshua McKenty, Piston’s CEO and co-founder, was the cloud architect of NASA’s Nebula cloud infrastructure and holds an appointed seat on OpenStack’s Policy Board.